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Updated: February 20, 2010 17:55 IST

India, Indiana

ANVAR ALIKHAN
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A thoughtful travelogue that reverses the conventional gaze.

It is said that there are only two stories: the first is “Man goes on long journey'; the second is “Stranger comes to town”. Every novel ever written falls into either one category, or the other. (Think about it.)

As far as travel writing is concerned, almost everything that's been written has been — for an Indian reader — in the “Stranger comes to town” vein. Travel writers have invariably been Westerners, visiting exotic, faraway places, and writing about what makes them exotic/ quaint/ weird, for Western audiences like themselves. Very rarely does one come across a travel book about an American or European destination written by an Asian, say, or an African.

Road less travelled

And that is what makes Roadrunner interesting: the fact that, for a change, it is a “Man goes on long journey” story. It is the United States, seen from the outside in, by an Indian like you or me. Someone who could be an old friend: intelligent, sensitive, observant, and above all, sharing a similar world-view. It is a reversing of the gaze, as it were.

Over the course of three long, looping drives through the South, the Mid-West and the West, D'Souza takes the back roads, goes into the small towns, and looks into the real, everyday America, and the real, everyday Americans who inhabit it. He is a sort of Indian Bill Bryson among the proverbial fat girls in Des Moines.

In the process, he does many of the things I wish I could have done myself. He goes, for example, to the world's biggest annual gathering of Harley Davidson enthusiasts, in South Dakota, and hangs out with a group of black-leather-and-denim-clad “Bikers for Christ”, who spread the word of God among the hard-drinking, hard-sinning congregation, patiently distributing their literature (“Wanted: Drug addicts, alcoholics, satanists, topless dancers, liars, adulterers, homosexuals, racists … by Jesus Christ”) and engaging random bikers in conversations about how Darwin was dead wrong.

He visits the Civil War cemetery at Shiloh, Tennessee, where nearly 20,000 young American soldiers lie buried, and discovers just how jagged was the divide that ran through the heart of the country: from the list of regiments that fought here, for example, he learns that one part of the 1st Missouri Regiment fought for the Union, while another part of the 1st Missouri fought for the Confederacy, comrade gunning down comrade.

He wanders down the historic Route 66 (immortalised by Nat King Cole's old song), which once took migrants from the Dust Bowl of the 1930s to the promised land of California, and he talks to people from the slowly dying communities along the Route today who are bravely trying to cope with the marginalisation that has followed its de-linking from the US highway system in the 1980s.

D'Souza is a sensitive and thoughtful man, and therefore Roadrunner is more than just the usual travel book; it has a collection of insights and observations about India, triggered off by parallel experiences in the US. For example, a conversation with Carl, his “Biker for Christ” friend is, for him, like looking into a mirror at the entire “Is desh mein rehna hoga, Toh Vande Mataram kehna hoga” issue. Driving through Alabama, listening to bad country music on the car radio sets off a speculation about why today's low-brow Bollywood mega-hits have connected with the Indian listener in a way that the great music of the O.P.Nayyar-Sahir-Naushad era could have never done. A visit to an Arizona aerospace museum leads to a reflection on the purpose of India's Republic Day Parade (via a comment on the behaviour of gazelles being chased by lions). The book is filled with philosophical cut-aways like these.

Meandering, in parts

But somewhere along the way Roadrunner outlives its welcome; somewhere along the way one begins to flip through the pages, looking for the interesting parts. Do I really want to read nine pages about the monks at a New Mexican monastery, and contrast their black-and-white world-view with the shaded greys of the Hindu world-view? Probably not. Do I really want to share the saga of weeping Hurricane Katrina victim, Winnie Wilmore, as Debbie the relief worker comforts her, saying, “Your tears are a gift! Thank you for sharing them with us!”? Probably not. Yet ultimately one is left with a sense of affection for the decent, earnest soul that D'Souza obviously is.

Finally: one small, but important, point about this book is its design. For some reason, Indian-published books have always been plagued by shoddy, amateurish design — as if their designers have not seen a modern-day book, published in the West, since circa 1957. But of late one has been noticing the beginnings of a graphic revolution in Indian publishing, and Pinaki De, the designer of this book, is obviously part of its advance guard.

Roadrunner, Dilip D'Souza, HarperCollins, p.331, Rs. 399.

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